An Exploration of the Longest Home Run of 2016

Eno took some time on Wednesday to talk about last season’s unluckiest changeup. Today, we’re going to talk about a changeup that wasn’t unlucky so much as it was woefully misplaced. It was a first-pitch changeup that was as middle-middle as one can be.

That’s where the title comes in. Let’s roll the film.

You may remember this dinger from a recent article here about Giancarlo Stanton. Statcast says it was the longest blast of the year, at a staggering 504.35 feet. It’s pretty easy to understand how this happened.

Three variables are at work:

  1. Giancarlo Stanton is more machine than man, a T-800 who warped back in time and stole a baseball bat from an innocent bystander instead of boots and a leather jacket.
  2. Coors Field is the Cape Canaveral of baseball.
  3. Chad Bettis missed his spot with a changeup pretty badly.

I don’t need explain the first point very much. You know all about Giancarlo Stanton and what he’s capable of doing. You’ve seen him lay waste to baseballs. His muscles are made of steel rebar. He’s been doing this for years, and if we’re lucky, he’ll do it for a while longer.

I also don’t need to explain point No. 2 very much. Coors is in Denver, and the 20th row of seats in the upper deck at Coors is exactly a mile above sea level. That means the air is thin, which means the ball flies further. This is good for guys like Stanton and bad for anybody who stands on the pitcher’s mound. Unfortunately, that includes Bettis.

So let’s discuss the third point. Bettis had decent success with his changeup last year. Our pitch values indicate his change was worth 2.1 runs above average, which was good for 21st among all qualified starters in 2016. It wasn’t Kyle Hendricks‘ change, but it was pretty useful. One would imagine that this is in part due to his ability to throw the pitch away from the middle of the zone, as the red areas in this heat map indicate.

And indeed, Nick Hundley didn’t want Bettis to throw an 89 mph middle-middle pitch to Stanton. He wanted it low and below the zone, which is a place that Bettis was clearly fond of throwing it. Here’s the portion of the video again that documents Hundley calling the pitch and then where it actually ends up.

Hundley wants the pitch below Stanton’s knees. He’s looking to get a whiff. The changeup doesn’t move, though, and just ends up becoming a batting-practice fastball at Stanton’s belt.

Pitchers miss their spots sometimes. It happens. Nobody’s perfect. Bettis just happened to miss his in the worse way possible, in the worst place possible, with one of the most dangerous hitters in the world at the plate. Whoops.

Was a first-pitch change a good call by Hundley? Statcast says that Stanton saw 154 changeups last year. He hit .306 against them. It’s not a huge sample, especially since Stanton played in just 119 games last year. Statcast says that Stanton has always had high batting averages against changeups, though, so perhaps Hundley was trying to catch Stanton napping. Bettis threw his changeup first just 7% of the time last year, according to Brooks Baseball. The scouting report wouldn’t have told Stanton to sit first-pitch change. Maybe it would’ve worked, had it been executed correctly. We’ll never know.

It’s not as if Bettis was an especially dinger-prone pitcher. His HR/9 of 1.06 was lower than the marks produced by Cole Hamels, Justin Verlander, and Max Scherzer. That’s not bad for a guy who called Coors Field home. In fact, Bettis actually gave up homers at a higher rate while pitching on the road. It was a matter of misfortune and Bettis throwing too high in the zone early in that game, according to the man himself.

One home run doesn’t win a game, though. The Rockies would claim the day, by way of 12 runs scored against Andrew Cashner and the Marlins staff. Bettis himself didn’t have an awful day, going six innings and allowing three runs on seven hits while walking two and striking out three. Not bad, not great. The box score hides the sheer size of Stanton’s home run.

For a ball to travel 504 feet, there have to be a lot of things that go right (or, depending on your point of view, horribly wrong). It’s really hard to hit an optimally located pitch that far. It has to leak into the middle of the plate, and it helps if you’re also a baseball-hitting Adonis and the air is nice and thin, not to mention that it was a warm August afternoon.

That’s how dingers happen. We’ll see more of them soon enough, thank goodness.

Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.

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6 years ago

That is a strange looking changeup. The fade and the plummet that marks the pitch, and that Eno spoke of yesterday, simply isn’t there. No wonder it went for a long ride.